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Inland Sea Roots

The Battle of Akama Strait, at Dan no Ura, in Choshu in 1185, by Utagawa Sadahide (aka Gountei Sadahide, 五雲亭 貞秀), Touken World Ukiyoe, https://www.touken-world-ukiyoe.jp/mushae/art7900055/

by David Yamaguchi, the North American Post

It is nearly impossible to begin reading about Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, and to not start tripping over the “Roots” stories of Seattle Japanese Americans, for many of us descend from southern Japan country stock along these shores. Our ancestors came from rural households that were poor enough to spawn American Dreamers, yet were just wealthy enough able to purchase passage on steamships.

In my October 9 column, I quoted from Donald Richie’s “The Inland Sea.” There, I focused on destinations that will be visited by pilgrims on the postponed, upcoming North American Post trip to the region. Yet, one of the sea islands that those travelers will pass near is Shodoshima, near the eastern end of the complex of islands that dot it.

School photo from Twenty Four Eyes

Shodo Island, as Richie reminds us, is where the novel, “Twenty-Four Eyes” [Niju-shi no hitomi] comes from (available in English in paperback and on Kindle). It is the well-known semi-autobiographical story of an elementary school teacher. Her happy pupils from 1928 are later engulfed by World War II.

Two film versions of it are available online, the classic 1954 black-and- white version (IMDB 8.0) and an excellent, color TV remake. I believe the latter is the 2013 Asahi version, as a commercial appears in it for the 2012 film “Emperor,” on General MacArthur, starring Tommy Lee Jones. Alas, the TV version is not subtitled, and can only be found by entering the title in Japanese.

I raise these films here because the original semi-autobiographical story was written by a Sakae Tsuboi. She was the sister-in-law of the Seattle immigrant Kakichi Tsuboi, who also hailed from Shodo-shima, according to his biographical entry in Kazuo Ito’s (1973) “Issei.”

For years, I have been impressed by Mr. Tsuboi’s account of lowering himself on a rope from a steamship into icy Smith Cove on a February night. After losing his shoes in the swim to shore, he nonetheless ran and walked 5.6 miles to north Beacon Hill, where a Christian Black family helped him. Today, grasping that he was a Shodo boy with a limited future helps make clear why he was so motivated to try his luck in the US.

While not spelled out in “Twenty-Four Eyes,” an interesting question to ponder is to what extent did the author having close relatives in the US influence her anti-war viewpoint?

The Inland Sea landscape is also connected to Seattle JA’s through the Genpei War (1180-1185), a Japanese civil war that determined which of two large clans would rule Japan. The most famous telling of this history is the “Tale of the Heike,” which has been described as the Japanese “Iliad.” Woodblock prints of this saga stand out in that their settings tend to be seascapes. The battles ranged from Kyoto, near the sea’s eastern end, to the Strait of Shimonoseki, at its western end. It closes with a sea battle fought between boats, with the last of the Heike sinking beneath the waves. The Genji go on to found the shogunate at Kamakura, one of the series of governments that led to the Tokugawa shogunate. The latter would rule the country until relinquishing it to the Meiji government, one generation before the birth of Seattle Issei.

Kumagai Naozane and Taira no Atsumori

After one of the Genpei battles, on the beach at Suma, near Kobe, a Genji  samurai calls out to a Heike warrior swimming away toward a ship to come back and fight him in a duel. When the challenged samurai returns, the Genji man realizes that he is a boy the same age as his own son, and considers asking him to flee again. But by then, it is too late, for other Genji soldiers are coming onto the scene.

At the end of the men’s duel, the older man takes the boy’s head, which was the practice of the day when an opponent was prized (the boy’s clothing marked him as a prince). But after doing so, he finds a flute in the boy’s pack, and the Genji soldier realizes what he has done. He has killed the flutist whose skill he had admired before the battle, wafting from the opposing camp. Thereafter sickened by war, he quits to become a Buddhist monk. For this, the former soldier, Kumagai Naozane (1141-1208), is remembered to this day.

I have known the story of the Kumagai duel since I was a boy, when I first heard it through my family oral history. My dad’s Seattle cousins were Kumagais through marriage. However, I did not grasp the tale’s geographic and historical context until re-reading Richie, and following up on the limited content therein.

The Issei Kumagai father was a descendant of that conscious-stricken samurai of centuries ago. His eldest son Frank would serve in the 442nd infantry, and become a schoolteacher after the war.

The lineage of that branch of the family was researched by my aunt, a teacher in Fukui-ken, Japan. Its later US history was told during the Seattle Redress Hearings by the outspoken eldest sister, Theresa [Yamaguchi] Takayoshi. It is unusual for its time because the family is hapa Irish-Japanese. Today, it is in the book, “And Justice for All” (John Tateishi, 1984) and on the Densho website. Most recently, Theresa Takayoshi’s family is among those remembered on the wall of the Bainbridge Exclusion Memorial.

Undoubtedly, there are many other Seattle Nikkei connections to the Inland Sea. Like the stories here, they are remembered today mainly by individual families. I learned of the Seattle Tsuboi connection to “Twenty-Four Eyes” through attending the 2019 celebration of life service for Louise Kashino Takisaki. There, two of her Shodo relatives made the long journey to attend from their present homes in Osaka and Kyoto, near the eastern end of the Inland Sea.

In 2020, the NAP Spring Japan Tour to Shikoku and the Seto Inland Sea was canceled due to COVID-19. It will be rescheduled after the pandemic. Updated tour information is at: